“Emotions and tempers ran as high as a Kickapoo flash flood when it was learned here last week that Governor Lucey had set the date of April 27 for an intensive review of the Kickapoo Lake Project.”
Thus began the coverage of the La Farge dam project controversy in the April 22, 1971 issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper. The local weekly was full of news on how the people in the village and surrounding area were organizing to show support for the dam project. Editor Arnie Widstrand wrote an excellent editorial listing several reasons to support the embattled project. Jackie Thelen, the Senior Editor of the LHS student newspaper, The Windjammer (published each week in the Enterprise), wrote an editorial also supporting the dam project. The village newspaper contained a press release from the Kickapoo Valley Association calling on all people in the Valley to support the dam project. A huge ad in the newspaper shouted out, “SHOW YOUR CONCERN ABOUT THE KICKAPOO LAKE PROJECT”. A group called “The Citizens For The Kickapoo Area” paid for the advertisement, which called for people to write letters to Governor Patrick Lucey to show support for the dam project.
The reaction to the announcement of the Governor’s “intensive review” of the La Farge dam project created immediate concerns in La Farge, especially among the pro-dam majority. Within days after the announcement, a group called “The Citizens For The Kickapoo River” (later called “The Citizens For The Kickapoo Area” and eventually shortened to a more manageable “Citizens For The Kickapoo”) was formed to counter the opposition to the La Farge dam and lake project. Arlen Johnson, who ran the funeral parlor in town, was chosen as the spokesman for the group and Robert Vosen, who sold insurance out of his home office on Bird Street in La Farge, was selected as the chairman of the group.
The new pro-dam group began by organizing an immediate letter-writing campaign that reached out to dam supporters in the Kickapoo Valley and throughout the state and beyond. Everyone was asked to write a letter to Governor Lucey asking for his support for the project at La Farge. Within weeks hundreds of pro-dam letters had poured into the Governor’s offices in Madison. The new group also started to solicit donations for the public relations effort and $1,500 was raised in a matter of days to support the cause. With the funds, radio and newspaper advertisements were purchased, spreading the message to support the dam project at La Farge. Organizational meetings were held daily in the village as the pro-dam forces in La Farge continued to mobilize. Letter writing sessions were held each day and evening to help with people getting the word out to support the dam and lake project. A lady’s church group held a prayer vigil asking for guidance for elected leaders so they could support the dam and lake project. School children made signs supporting the project as part of their class assignments and then carried the signs that read “Save The Dam” and “Save Lake La Farge” along La Farge’s Main Street after school.
At one of the first meetings of the La Farge pro-dam group, a surprise visitor was Congressman Vernon Thomson, who restated his firm support for the dam project at La Farge. Thomson, a Republican from Richland Center, also castigated Governor Lucey for interfering with the project and said it was “callous of the Governor to deny rural America of benefits”.
The La Farge pro-dam group wanted more information from the Governor’s office about the review meeting scheduled for later in the month. Blake Kellogg, Governor Lucey’s press secretary, spoke to the leaders of the La Farge group several times by telephone and then came to La Farge to meet with them. He was faced with an angry group of fifty people at the meeting held in the basement community meeting room of the La Farge State Bank. Kellogg tried to assure the people gathered there, which included all the leaders of the pro-dam group, that the review session would be a fair and open process and all sides would be heard. He vowed that the review would not be conducted like a “kangaroo court”, that all sides and voices would be heard and that the purpose of the review was to “put the full issues out on the table, so Governor Lucey can see the pros and cons on either side”. Kellogg, a professional at public relations, smoothed some ruffled feathers in the crowd that day, and left with a much greater appreciation of how important the dam project was to many people in La Farge.
On Saturday night, April 24th, over 500 people gathered at the school gym in La Farge for a public meeting on the dam project. Sponsored by the local pro-dam group, the attendees at the meeting were overwhelming in favor of completion of the dam and lake at La Farge. Fifteen proponents of the dam spoke that night at the meeting and the rhetoric and emotion was heated. The merits of the dam and lake were praised and the Governor’s interference was condemned. “Professional panic-peddlers who call themselves ecologists” were vilified for stirring up the controversy. Another speaker called for a “David and Goliath battle” as the Citizens For The Kickapoo took on the potent nationally financed conservation and environmental groups. “These so-called environmentalists who don’t have to scratch a living out of these hills have no right to determine the future of these people”, said Arlen Johnson in referring to the anti-dam groups. As the meeting wound down after several hours, more donations were collected to help finance the pro-dam cause, signatures were collected on petitions and instructions and addresses for writing letters of support for the dam project were distributed.
During that April of 1971, in the few weeks before the Governor’s review meeting, La Farge was a hubbub of various activities to show support for the dam project. Posters appeared in most of the storefront windows on Main Street businesses. School children continued to walk the streets of La Farge (sometimes during recess and noon hour of the school day) carrying signs of support and marching for the dam project. The daily planning meetings often drew representatives from the Corps’ St. Paul office to further explain the merits of the dam and lake project. After much agitation by the Citizens For The Kickapoo with the Governor’s office, Robert Vosen’s name was added to the list of those allowed to speak at the Governor’s review meeting. Finally, a La Farge leader would now be able to relate a local perspective at the “intensive review”.
Next time, we will look at how that review session, held in Madison at the state capital, brought together the two opposing sides on the La Farge dam issue. For the first time, the dam and lake project would be measured with the newly defined parameters of the emerging national environmental movement. For the pro-dam backers from the Kickapoo Valley, the review session illuminated the landscape of the debate over the federal project.